Tuesday, November 30, 2010

TN: Wolff Vineyards 2008 Edna Valley Syrah

There's not too much to say for the Wolff Vineyards 2008 Edna Valley Syrah other than it's varietally correct, refreshing and tasty, all for around $20. For all the consternation over whether something correctly fulfills a certain aesthetic or will age for three decades, sometimes it's easy to forget that the wine is there to being a pleasing drink. A pleasing drink indeed!
  • 2008 Wolff Vineyards Syrah - USA, California, Central Coast, Edna Valley

    Really pleasing Syrah. Nice bacony, smokey aromas. Fresh red currant, bacon and blood flavors. A good seam of tannin on the finish. No heat, not heavily extracted. Just a highly drinkable and refreshing Syrah that's varietally correct. Excellent QPR.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

WN: William Harrison 2007 Rutherford Simpatico

I've been making an effort to try more wines from Napa, really I have. But Napa doesn't make it easy. The wines are mostly very expensive (even when justified), and many can be super-ripe and generally overdone. I've had positive experiences with wines from Carneros, but up valley Napa has been a tough nut to crack. My general rule is if there's nothing exciting at $15-$30, then I'm not gonna move up to a higher price bracket in hopes of finding more gravitas.

Well, the William Harrison 2007 Simpatico, a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 35% Cabernet Franc from the Rutherford AVA, has opened up a new avenue of exploration by delivering solid value in a style that I personally like. While this isn't hugely structured for the long-term, it is well-constructed and layered in a classical style. It's sort of French in its balance, yet Californian in its clean fruit with subtle minty earthiness. At around $25, this is a complete wine, which is hardly a given, especially in California.

Based on a heat-summation map in the World Atlas of Wine, Rutherford is primarily a Region II climate, meaning it is moderately cool to temperate. Further north moving towards St. Helena and Calistoga the climate shifts to a warm Region III designation. While the various elevations and exposures muddle distinctions a bit, perhaps this sheds a bit of light on the situation. Carneros may indeed be a marginal cold climate, while Rutherford is in a sweet spot where neither massive fruit or herbaceous bell pepper character dominates. Given that many of the famed, historic vineyards are located in Rutherford and Oakville mid-valley, that certainly would be logical.
  • 2007 William Harrison Simpatico - USA, California, Napa Valley, Rutherford

    Nice value for a Napa/Rutherford wine. Cherries, black currant, a hint of mint/earth, and some licorice and tar. Refreshing mouth-watering acidity, medium bodied, supple texture. More to the cherry and red currant side of spectrum, not plummy. Has some smokey oak, but certainly complementary and balanced. Finishes dry with licorice and cedar, though there is a little persistent heat. Seems built for near term, say 3-5 years, and very pleasurable now. Has the layering of a fine wine at an attractive price point. 65% CS, 35% CF.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tasting Notes from Ojai: Old Creek, Vino V, and The Ojai Vineyard

Following up on my last post on Vino V Wines and Old Creek Ranch, here are a few highlights of what we tasted. This is not a comprehensive list. Just a few favorites and noteworthy wines.

We also visited The Ojai Vineyard's tasting room in downtown Ojai on this trip. This is an historic producer whose winemaker and owner, Adam Tolmach, was among the first handful of winemakers to help realize the potential of Santa Barbara County. Generally speaking I liked the Santa Maria wines more, and the warm climate Roll Ranch wines didn't have the lift and complexity of the cooler climate wines. A few notes are included here as well.

Old Creek Ranch

2008 Grenache Blanc - Decent, but middle of the road. Winemaker Michael Meager commented he wasn't terribly excited about this one, either.

2009 Loureiro - Aromatic, peaches, honey, but very acidic and mineral driven flavors. From Estelle Vineyard.

2009 Albarino - Refreshing, good body, lemon and citrus aromas. From Paragon Vineyard in Edna Valley.

2008 Carignane - Earthy, tobacco, floral, medium body, medium acid. From Camp 4 Vineyard in Santa Ynez.

2007 Cabernet Sauvigon - Very fruity, kirsch, from Branham Obsidian vineyard between St. Helena & Calistoga. Warm climate, fruit-driven Cab.

2007 Santa Barbara County Syrah - Deep fruit & lavender, earth, tannic, long finish,

2007 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah - Meaty, floral, structured, supple, elegant, currants and cherries.

Vino V Wines

2009 Confundida - Floral aromas, nice texture and acidity, unique and brimming with character. 100% Albarino from Estelle Vineyard.

2004 Syrah - Great cool climate Syrah aromas, dense and tannic. From White Hawk Vineyard in Los Alamos.

2006 Syrah - Again, great cool climate Syrah aromas, but a bit more supple. Also White Hawk.

The Ojai Vineyard

2006 Clos Pepe Chardonnay - Santa Rita Hills AVA, intense, mouthwatering, apples, lemons, not super oaky or tropical, a more restrained style.

2006 Solomon Hills Pinot Noir - Feminine Pinot, spicy, red fruits, med body, some earth.

2006 Clos Pepe Pinot Noir - Heavier, earthier, raspberry, meaty/smokey, more tannic, mushroomy, but a distracting raisin aroma is present.

2007 Santa Barbara County Syrah - Pepper and floral aromas, good structure and tannin.

2005 Bien Nacido Syrah - Spicy aromas, dark fruit, tannic, concentrated, great Syrah, should age.

2005 Roll Ranch Syrah - More jammy, fruity, seemed less concentrated, a bit of heat and roasted fruit.

2008 Roll Ranch Viognier Ice Wine - Harvested at 22 Brix, frozen, then crushed. 9% ABV, sweet but still fresh, aromatic with honey, very nectar-like, cryo-extraction seems to capture freshness and intensity (i.e sugar, flavor and acidity).

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Visit to Vino V Wines & Old Creek Ranch

A weekend back I had the opportunity to talk with winemaker Michael Meager and taste through both his label Vino V Wines and the Old Creek Ranch label, for whom he also makes the wines, at the winery just south of Ojai. Michael started at famed producer Mount Eden in Santa Cruz after finishing school before moving on to work under the famed (but modest and shy) Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard. In 2004, he started producing wines for his label at Old Creek Ranch. Then in 2007 when the winemaker position opened up at Old Creek, he took that position over as well.

Ojai isn't the best known of wine regions. While I learned there are 58 vineyards in the Ojai area, most of which are not commercial, there are only a handful of producers in the region and most of the fruit is sourced from the north in Santa Barbara County. In fact, Pierce's Disease, a bacterial infection transmitted by leaf hoppers, killed off most of the vines in the Ojai area within the last decade or two. So what's a guy with Michael's pedigree doing here in Ojai? Making damned good wine. (Though it's worth noting between The Ojai Vineyard and ultra-cult Sine Qua Non he's in rather rarefied company.)

The winery is located off of Highway 33 at the end of a residential road that crosses a small creek. It's pretty unassuming, and in fact we discovered the winery by accident last spring when driving back from a day hike in the Ojai back country. I was half expecting wines with 'Central Coast' if not 'California' appellation designations. What we found, though, was a treasure trove of small-lot wines from excellent vineyard sources. (A lesson: never prejudge a wine or winery!) After tasting an aromatic yet refreshingly acidic Portuguese variety named Loureiro that wasn't yet available for sale, we resolved to return later. Michael Meager made it even better by offering to give us a tour and tasting of his wines.

Michael's over-arching philosophy is to produce wines with light-handed intervention and little new oak that are expressive of variety and place. In fact, the red wines are generally allowed to start malolactic fermentation spontaneously, without inoculation. Most wines are aged in neutral barrels, including some whites. The main difference between the two labels is sourcing of fruit, with Vino V being focused more on what Michael terms as "strawberry, chocolate, vanilla," i.e. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah--not the flavor profile. Old Creek tends to source a diverse mix of varieties in addition to the 'meat and potato' wines like Syrah, Cab and Chard.

Tasting notes will follow in the next post, but it's worth highlighting a few wines with a bit of context. The Old Creek Ranch 2009 Loureiro is an aromatic powerhouse, brimming with floral aromas, yet tart and mineral, even a bit austere, in flavor. The Vino V 2009 Confundida, which is 100% Albariño, has a similarly floral impression which I've never encountered with this varietal. It was a bit richer in flavor than the Loureiro as well. Both wines were made from grapes sourced from Estelle Vineyard in the warmer eastern portion of Santa Ynez, though they were harvested at a fairly low sugar level by California standards. That was a bit of a surprise as I generally haven't liked wines from this area as they often seem a bit jammy and boozy. Yet these two wines stood out for their freshness and aromatic lift.

Another important observation came by way of tasting a few barrel samples. We tried two samples of the 2010 Albariño, one from neutral oak barrel and the other from a stainless steel vessel. Both were milky in color due to the suspended lees and a bit tart like lemonade as they have not gone through malolactic fermentation--nor are they intended to. But the barrel aged version was incredibly aromatic with a bright lemonade-like flavor, while the stainless steel was much more closed, albeit seemingly deeper in flavor with more grapefruit pith. Indeed, it seems that neutral oak is an important part of aromatic wine's development. Michael noted via email,
I think the neutral oak does accentuate the expressive aromatics, while the [stainless steel] tends to accentuate more of the flavor/acid/core profile in the mouth. The combination ends up being pretty neat.
Tasting of a 2010 and a 2009 Barbera proved instructive as well. The 2010 has yet to undergo malolactic fermentation and was a bit edgy and sharp in acidity as a result. The 2009, while still showing Barbera's characteristic freshness, was considerably more rounded as the tangy malic acid had been converted to softer lactic acid. But you know what, barrel samples almost universally taste really good. The freshness of the fruit and chunky, unfiltered texture is always enjoyable.

I'd be remiss if I didn't end by mentioning the various Syrahs we tasted. There were the Vino V 2004 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah, the Vino V 2006 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah, the Old Creek Ranch 2007 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah, and the Old Creek Ranch 2007 Santa Barbara County Syrah all available to taste and purchase. White Hawk Vineyard is nestled in the cool Los Alamos region of Santa Barbara County, and all of these wines showed the spicy, peppery and floral nuances of cool-climate Syrah, though vintage and age of the wine differentiated the wines. These are not light wines at all, but they have a clarity of flavor on top of the structure. At around $30 give or take a few dollars, these are first-class wines, which qualifies as a value in my book.

Friday, November 19, 2010

TN: Domaine La Roquète 2006 Chateauneuf du Pape

This one was just too good a deal to pass up. A Chateauneuf du Pape (CdP for short) from the Bruniers, who also own Kermit Lynch's favorite Chateauneuf du Pape Vieux Telegraph, for $20? Sold! I came across the Domaine La Roquète 2006 Chateauneuf du Pape at Cost Plus World Market, which I typically associate with middling mass market wines. While this is likely made in fairly large quantities, Chateauneuf du Pape is considered one of the premiere appellation in the Rhone Valley. This is not your typical Critter Label or branded "kitchen sink" blend.

While Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge is permitted to include about a dozen varieties, this is a blend of the three dominant Southern Rhone varieties Grenache Noir (70%), Syrah (20%) and Mourvèdre (10%). Probably the defining characteristic of this wine is "garrigue"--a sort of herbs de Provence aroma and flavor. Sure, this wine has fruit, body, oak and structure. But it's the dusty, mellow herbaceousness that gives the wine lift.

I've tasted from various Southern Rhone appellations, but this is my first Chateauneuf du Pape. I'm sure I'll be trying more, though finding a quality Chateauneuf du Pape at this price point is rare. Gigondas or Vayqueras often are closer to my favored $20 price point. At any rate, this was a nice find in a New World/Old World fusion mode. Chunky, large framed and clean, but with earthy complexity. Yum.
  • 2006 Frédéric & Daniel Brunier Châteauneuf-du-Pape Domaine La Roquète - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape

    Strawberry, blackcurrant, tar and garrigue aromas carry through onto palate. Big bodied rich wine with some oak. Med-low acidity. Does have some heat on finish, but eucalyptus is more dominant. Structured, should be aged. Love the French take on big wines as there's plenty of earthy depth to the rich fruit and oak.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

WN: Longoria 2007 Blues Cuvée vs. Campo di Sasso 2007 Insoglio

This is a comparative tasting I've been hoping to do for some time. Both the Longoria 2007 Blues Cuvée and the Campo di Sasso 2007 Insoglio have similar blends roughly evenly split between Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. But the former is a "Super Barbara" sourced from a variety of terroirs in Santa Barbara County while the latter is a "Super Tuscan" indicating it consists of international varieties like Cab, Merlot and Syrah grown in Toscana. By most accounts 2007 was a strong vintage in both regions.

As of now, the Insoglio gets the edge. While it doesn't have much structure for the long run, the mix of varieties shows through and there's genuine earthy complexity. The Blues Cuvée in contrast is big, structured, fruity and oaky in a well-made New World style. It has better potential long-term, though it's hard to say whether the fruit and oak will eventually recede to reveal the intrinsic character. The smoke of the Syrah and tobacco of the Cab Franc and Merlot are deeply buried if they are there at all.

Both are around $20 to $25 depending on where you look and really illustrate why style and structure are so important. Both have plenty of fruit, but beyond that picking just one would come down to personal taste and intent. Do you want a fruit-driven wine to age? Blues it is! Do you want some earthy, funky complexity right now? Then there's the Insoglio. The Insoglio would be a re-buy for me personally, but it's not a question of it being better. The flavor profile just works for me.

  • 35% Syrah, 30% CF, 30% Merlot, 5% PV. Aromas of tobacco, smoked meat/bacon, toast and cherries. Medium bodied, medium-low acid, light tannins. Light on oak, too. Nice cherry fruit upfront, then finishes heavy on olive tapenade. Mellow, earthy wine with a core of red fruit and a great herbaceous edge. Structured for near-term consumption.
  • 2007 Longoria Blues Cuvée - USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County

    31% CF (Alisos), 27% Merlot (Alisos), 24% Syrah (Clover Creek), 18% CS (Estelle). Aromas of plum, cedar, tar and vanilla. Definite new world Bdx blend aromas. Full bodied, creamy, but also fresh with med-high acidity. Tannic with a dose of new oak. Finishes dry. Big, ripe, balanced, dark fruited. Needs a few years to let tannins mellow in my opinion. A little one dimensional now, though the delicious factor is there big time.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Vinography: Where Self Awareness Goes to Die

Alder Yarrow is a talented guy, no question about it. But self awareness is not his strong suit. He's published another blog entry on Vinography decrying the tragedy of wine being treated purely as a investment or trophy. In principle, the post says all the right things. He tells these cynical wine speculators and hoarders essentially to take a shit or get off the pot. Drink the wine, because that's what it's there for.

But the same sentiment can be directed to Vinography: take a shit or get off the pot. A blog that breathlessly glorifies ultra-expensive cult (or at least aspiring cult) producers like Kapcsándy, Blackbird, Sea Smoke, Bond, and Giacomo Conterno is not exactly the spokesblog for the common man. In fact, it's perpetuating the same class divide that Yarrow criticizes. Yarrow simply doesn't get that one can't lionize $100+ Napa cult Cabs one day, then criticize luxury wine collectors the next for hoarding them.

Yarrow wants to end what he calls "the travesty of wine and social class." You know what else is a travesty? Hypocrisy. Yarrow does an excellent job covering a variety of wines, and has a special ability for illustrating what makes high end wineries tick. But if you're covering a luxury good--and that's what wine is, even down to the $15 or $20 Mondavi Napa Merlot at Von's--there's no getting around it. Vinography is about luxury goods, pure and simple. There's just no sense in criticizing the same market that Vinography covers.

I'm not begrudging anyone for enjoying or writing about expensive wine. Heck, I've done the same thing myself! But let's drop the pretense. Writing up all the minutiae related to a bottle of fermented grapes is not dispelling the notion of wine is a luxury. Instead it feeds into the same mythology that it is complicated, expensive and snobby. We can't have it both ways.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

TN: Quinta do Vallado 2007 Douro

The Quinta do Vallado 2007 Douro was one of those Costco finds where the thinking goes, "this is $15, looks interesting, let's give it a try." Usually these sorts of buys work out pretty well since Costco doesn't typically sell plonk, and even the less standard choices are fairly reliable as a result. Plus, Jeff gave it a good write-up on Viva la Wino.

This is a blend of the port varieties Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca and Sousao. I'm not a big port drinker at all, though a recent encounter with varietal Touriga Nacional has me intrigued by the floral, spicy character of the grape. After tasting this, I can definitely recommend it for its Touriga character. It's also in the plushly textured, delicious, easy drinking mode. The only drawback was a pesky reductive, rubbery aroma that hid some of the wine's character. While I don't think this is an ager, it's definitely worth the price. The only concern here is the variation evident in the notes in CellarTracker. Were there multiple lots blended? Is the wine not stable? Did some get treated badly in the distribution process? Given the bottle variation, best to try a bottle from your local source before buying multiples.
  • 2007 Quinta do Vallado Douro - Portugal, Douro

    Rubber tire reduction at first. But cinnamon and musky floral aromas (Touriga at work here!) are there as well. Blackberry and herbs also. Seems structured for near term. Fruit forward with good savory depth. Silky tannin. Nice freshness. Crowd pleasing, easy drinking, and delicious! Little heat, would be a notch better without the rubber tire funk.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

When Demystifying Terroir Turns into Bad Science

Wine Peeps, a Washington-centric wine blog, posted, at first glance, a compelling article documenting formal chemical analysis of a Syrah from the producer Cayuse. This is essentially a "cult wine" producer who critics have consistently lauded. The gist of the article is that the wine showed some seriously funky characteristics consistent with high levels of mercaptans or volatile sulfides. So the authors paid to have a sample of the wine tested by ETS in Napa to determine if the compounds were present in abnormally high concentrations. The results were compelling:
Within two days, we had the results, posted online and emailed to us. Then we had a follow-up call with a representative at ETS to discuss the results. The evidence was clear. The Cayuse was a flawed wine. It had volatile acidity slightly above the normal sensory threshold but at a level a massive Syrah can support, but the worst result from the chemistry panel was that it had a high pH level, which made it more susceptible to bacterial attack. The most damning result, however, came from the sulfides panel. Published literature and ETS studies say that low levels of dimethyl sulfide can contribute roundness, fruitiness, or complexity; however, at levels greater than 50 ug/L, it may contribute vegetative, cooked cabbage, or sulfide smells to wines. According to the ETS representative, this wine had the highest dimethyl sulfide level he had ever seen (312 ug/L), more than 10 times the normal sensory threshold (17-25 ug/L), which accounts for the canned corn, rotten vegetables, and decomposed greens flavors. And, those dimethyl sulfide levels and resulting unpleasant sensory characteristics will only increase with wine age, according to ETS.
What was apparently attributed to terroir is apparently an extremely high level of dimethyl sulfide. (Just as a cross-reference, Jamie Goode confirms that various sulfides can bring some serious funk.) Perhaps the terroir does indirectly contribute to this character by producing fruit that naturally ferments in a manner that generates high quantities of volatile sulfides. Or perhaps it's mostly the "house style" that shows, especially if fermentation technique is reductive. Maybe a high pH allowed some in-bottle microbial development. In any case, though, it's clear those attributing the sulfide-heavy character directly to terroir are not on firm footing. Many factors can contribute to production of sulfides.

The Wine Peeps, however, go awry arguing that this is some sort of objective, absolute and unequivocal flaw, especially in the comments that follow. I love science more than most people, and data indicating the presence of stinky compounds is priceless in my book. But when it comes to personal taste, objectivity simply doesn't exist. The most one can do is indicate that sulfides have a large sensory impact.

I recently wrote about a Merlot that had an intense briny, seaweed characteristic, which may well be related to volatile sulfides. In any case, it is quite likely some less than commercially acceptable sulfur-based compound was present in a high concentration. Yet I really liked this "flawed" wine. The seaweed aroma made it unique and interesting. For a mass market wine this would not be desirable because it may well displease a large segment of consumers. But for smaller production wines the real art is in differentiation if not a tension between easy to like flavors and more challenging ones.

Ultimately it comes down to taste. One man's flaw is another man's intriguing characteristic. Some folks like fruity, oaky wines. Others like stinky, dirty wines. Who's right? Is excessive fruit a flaw? What about high alcohol? No, it's about taste. Many technically "flawless" grocery store wines I try have a vanilla if not tapioca or yogurt flavor most likely due to spoofy oak treatment. This is way above my sensory threshold. But is it a flaw? No. I just don't like this flavor. Others do, and that's fine.

Friday, November 5, 2010

TN: Longoria 2002 Blues Cuvée

One of the nice benefits to being in a local wine club is access to library wines at fair prices, often after having tasted the wine. Such was the case with the Longoria 2002 Blues Cuvée. This bottling was originally started by Rick Longoria as a means to foist Cabernet Franc upon unsuspecting consumers. Over the years he has shifted its purpose to blending, though Cab Franc has remained a large portion of the blend.

The 2002 vintage has an interesting near 50-50 split along two dimensions. First, it's 54% Cabernet Franc and 46% Merlot. But 30% of the Cab Franc and 26% of the Merlot Came from Westerly (now McGinley) Vineyard in the warmer eastern portion of Santa Ynez, while 24% of the Cab Franc and 20% of the Merlot came from the cooler Alisos Vineyard in Los Alamos. In other words, there are really four evenly divided blending components. The result is a fruit-driven, New World styled wine, but one with structure and complexity.

While this isn't Longoria's most expensive wine, it is the one I've enjoyed most with age on it. In fact, it seems it needs a few years to integrate. For around $25 as a new release, this is a really decent value in wine that hits its stride 5 to 10 years from vintage. I paid a bit more as this bottle came pre-aged, though.
  • 2002 Longoria Blues Cuvée - USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County
    Drinking really nicely. Has the texture of velvet being rubbed against the grain. Creamy, with softness of aged tannins, but still pretty darn tannic and drying. Seems to have both fruit and structure to support further aging. Chocolate, blackberry, cedar, tobacco, anise and coffee on the nose. Fruit showing some advancement, but nothing to worry about. Full bodied, creamy, with nice freshness. A lot of spicy anise flavor on the finish. No rough edges here. Finishes very well. Balanced New World wine with bones for aging I'd reckon.